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Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Who's Afraid of Virginia?: Judge's Incorrect Evidentiary Ruling Leads to Charges Being Dropped Against Kwaume Edwards

Yesterday, Substitute Circuit Judge Warren Stevens made a seemingly bizarre evidentiary ruling in a Virginia courtroom, leading to murder charges being dropped against 18 year-old defendant Kwaume Edwards.  Kwaume was charged with second degree murder, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, and discharging a firearm from a vehicle in connection with the May, 2006 shooting death of 29 year-old Michael Tyler.  Kwaume had previously been convicted of second degree murder last April, but his conviction was reversed when his counsel learned that state's witness Carlos Chapman discussed a plea deal with prosecutors despite denying this fact when testifying at Edwards' first trial.

During Kwaume's current retrial, his counsel argued that a taped interview between Kwaume and York Sheriff's investigators was inadmissible because it wasn't inculpatory evidence.  Kwaume's cousin, Marquise Edwards pleaded guilty to first degree murder and use of a firearm in connection with Tyler's shooting, and the prosecution asserted that Kwaume helped him commit the crime.  In the taped interview, Kwaume admitted to the investigators that he handled the gun allegedly used by Marquise before the shooting, wiped his fingerprints off of the gun, and stated, "I didn't have too much to do with the shooting."

Judge Stevens apparently agreed with defense counsel's argument that the evidence was inadmissible, which led to Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Charles Powell dismissing all charges against Kwaume based on inasufficient evidence.  This turn of events led to an angry eruption between the defendant's family and Tyler's family, who believe it was actually Kwaume who shot Michael Tyler.  From what I can tell from the articles reporting the judge's ruling, Tyler's family members had a right to be angry.

It is well established in Virginia case law that an out of court statement by a criminal defendant, if relevant, is admissible as a party admission, under an exception to the rule against hearsay. See, e.g., Bloom v. Commonwealth, 554 S.E.2d 84 (Va. 2001).  Furthermore, "party admissions are admissible regardless of whether they are inculpatory or incriminating when made...." McCarter v. Commonwealth, 566 S.E.2d 868, 871 (Va.App. 2002).  Instead, "[a]ny statement by a party to the proceedings, including an out-of-court statement by a defendant in a criminal case, is admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule when offered against the party." Alatishe v. Commonwealth, 404 S.E.2d 81, 82 (Va.App. 1991).

It is a little unclear from the artcles reporting his decision whether the judge merely found that Kwaume's taped statements were insufficient to prove the charges against him or whether the judge in fact found that they were admissible.  It appears, however, that the Judge Stevens actually found the statements to be inadmissible, a ruling that would be clearly incorrect as a matter of law.

-CM 

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